Still spanners in the works for roll-out of set-top boxes

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Communications Minister Yunus Carrim has to balance interests. Photo: GCIS

Johannesburg - Divisions remain over the control mechanism for the set-top boxes to be used in the digital terrestrial television migration project, preventing a solution, according to Yunus Carrim, the Minister of Communications.

Last week the cabinet decided that the inclusion of the control system in the set-top boxes for free-to-air broadcasting was optional.

This decision had been expected to resolve the impasse and allow South Africa to catch up with the roll-out of the national digital terrestrial television project to meet the international deadline for the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting and commercial launch by 2015.

But this week a body of black-owned manufacturers that intend to bid for a share of the more than R2 billion tender to manufacture the decoders threatened legal action against the communications minister over the cabinet’s decision.

The National Association of Manufacturers in Electrical Components (Namec) said the decision to make the inclusion of the control mechanism optional would prejudice emerging manufacturers. They could incur delays in registering with providers of control mechanisms and lose business to established manufacturers.

Carrim said the government had proposed a generic control system and not a specific system, such as encryption or conditional access.

The mechanism would protect broadcast content and prevent the use of government-subsidised decoders outside the country. Broadcasters that used the mechanism would have to pay the government a fee.

Set-top box control was set by industrial policy and was necessary to protect the local electronics industry, create jobs and prevent the market from being flooded with cheap imports, Carrim said. “Without that protection we will not be able to create space for black entrepreneurs.”

The policy amendments on set-top boxes were gazetted on December 6. The department had met Namec to explain the decision and get its response.

“We proposed that we set up a joint technical committee with them to address their outstanding concerns. They agreed with this,” Carrim said, adding: “We have 30 days within which to deal with Namec’s concerns. We think it’s entirely unnecessary to threaten court action.”

The impasse had had knock-on effects, such as delaying the allocation of high-demand radio frequency spectrum for cellular network operators and additional broadcasters.

Namec member Vijay Pandey said yesterday that Carrim was ill informed about the implications of a control mechanism, which would give control over the boxes to foreign security companies.

He said controls were used in pay-TV settings, not free-to-air broadcasting. “We’re happy to go with set-top box locking if he gives us a piece of paper that says no conditional access and no encryption.”

Avhasei Mukoma, a telecoms and broadcasting attorney, said local broadcasters were fighting over market share and the control mechanism helped to lock content to a specific broadcaster’s box.

He said Namec needed the tender. “If [the government’s] decision is not in favour of Namec, it means they lose.”

He added that the government also “wants to be seen to be addressing everyone’s concerns”. - Business Report

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